After Seven Years, the Migration Bill May Soon Be Law

SANTIAGO — A widely-known reform to the Migration Law has been in Congress since 2013. Last week, the Senate started voting on over 200 articles; however, there have been many disagreements that have delayed the processing of the bill. The remaining articles will continue to be discussed and voted on next week, while tensions between the government and the opposition sectors keep on rising.

A reform bill that seeks to modernize the current Migration Law is under examination in Congress. Senators have been discussing the bill for two weeks. The draft has approximately 200 articles and the discussions have been long and intense, so several articles remain to be voted on next week.

So far there have been two rounds of votes, the first on Sept. 3, where among the articles that were approved is one that prevents deporting those who arrived in Chile claiming to be victims of persecution.

The second session was held on Sept. 10, where among the articles approved is one that allows residents to request family reunification with their spouse or, “the person who maintains a relationship that, under the law, produces equivalent effects to marriage.” That last specification was added during the session, after many senators agreed that the word “spouse” excluded many families.

Chile is home to approximately 1.5 million migrants, according to data compiled by the National Institute of Statistics and the Immigration Department. The latter estimates that around 500,000 immigrants could arrive in Chile in the coming months, due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

The current Migration Law dates back to 1975. It was promulgated under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and it is one of the oldest migration laws in Latin America. The bill that seeks to modernize it is itself a bit long in the tooth: it has been under examination in Congress for seven years. 

President Sebastián Piñera is urging congresspersons to discuss and approve the bill as an urgent matter. According to the Immigration Department, the bill seeks to update the country in this area, and also guarantee a safe, orderly, and regular migration, amid the migration wave that Chile has been experiencing since 2015.

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Disagreements Between The Government And The Opposition

The Piñera administration and the opposition sectors are not seeing eye to eye. The latter presented modifications to the law that, according to the Piñera administration, would only cause harm to immigrants that arrive in the country and to Chileans.

One proposal presented by the opposition is the possibility for foreigners to arrive in the country as tourists and, at the border, announce their willingness to stay permanently and look for a job. Another proposal would give illegal immigrants 90 days after the promulgation of the law, to regularize their situation.

As to both, President Piñera said in a press conference that “if they are approved … I will present a veto because we deeply believe that they would cause serious harm to the country, to Chileans, and legal immigrants living in Chile.”

Foreign Minister Andrés Allamand tweeted a video asking congresspersons to reject the modifications promoted by the opposition. “We have to reject labor tourism … This is precisely what generated the migratory chaos in the past. To prevent it from happening again, the fundamental thing is that work visas are granted in the countries of origin.”

Daniel Ortega, the legal advisor for Incami — the Chilean Catholic Migration Institute — told Chile Today that Incami agrees with the government that the proposals from the opposition will only damage immigrants. “Arriving in Chile as a tourist and then looking for a job is not a good option. We have seen that there are not many job offers for immigrants, or that employers do not know how to hire them either. In the long run, the immigrant that doesn’t find a job will have to remain in the country illegally, because we wonder, how are they going to control if they leave the country? … it is the same thing that happens today; the people with an irregular situation will be in precarious conditions.”

In the past two sessions, senators were not able to vote on the opposition’s proposals, so these modifications will be voted on next week. Meanwhile, the government is asking to reject them because, as they stated, this will allow “the arrival of people in precarious conditions, making it difficult for them to be included in our country, with high possibilities of labor abuse and difficulties in regularizing their situation.”

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Opinions On The Migrations Bill

As the current law dates back to 1975, Ortega told Chile Today that what is needed is “a modern legislation that responds to the current context and migratory flows that the country receives. They should be talking about modernizing infrastructure, or ensuring immigrants’ social and labor rights … there is still a long way to go.”

Héctor Pujols, president of the National Coordinator of Migrants in Chile, is critical of the reform presented by Piñera in 2013, as he told El Siglo that it only closes doors and calls for illegal migration. “The people that come to the country irregularly are in worse conditions because they cannot sign contracts, they live in fear of being deported … This bill seeks to make living conditions even more precarious.”

The National Network of Migrants’ Organizations held a meeting on Sept. 5 and 6, where the Migration Law was discussed. According to El Desconcierto, all the organizations that participated in the conference said they rejected the bill. As stated by the network, “the bill does not guarantee or have a legal approach to the human rights of immigrants.”

José Tomás Vicuña, director of the Servicio Jesuita Migrante (Migrant Jesuit Service), is more optimistic about the reform of the migration law. He said in a conversation with CNN Chile that what the government wants is for all visas to be requested in the country of origin, “because then the person would arrive with a visa and a RUT (Chilean identification number) from day 1, which is ideal, it’s the best option.”

Regarding the disagreement between the opposition and the government, Vicuña said that both points of view have pros and cons. “We believe that a common point must be reached … they should set the requirements and deadlines in the regulations … then, depending on the administration in office and the economic cycle we are in, they will be able to figure out how to regulate the migratory flow.

Awaiting The End Of A Seven Year Struggle

Pending next week’s last voting session, the Piñera administration keeps insisting that the proposals from the opposition sectors should be rejected because they would only call for another wave of immigrants entering the country, amid one of the worst economic crises of the past 30 years. 

Interior Minister Undersecretary Juan Francisco Galli held a press conference during which he mentioned a third proposal made by the opposition sector, that gives residence to all those who can sustain themselves for two years in the country “in any condition, even those who have entered clandestinely. We believe that this generates the wrong incentives … the incentive in that case is to enter Chile illegally.

Ortega told Chile Today that the migratory flows will not vary much whether one side’s or the other’s proposals are approved. “People who want to emigrate to Chile will do so either way. Hopefully, they can do so in decent conditions, like arriving here already with a visa that allows them to adapt in Chilean society.”

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